11.13.2013

Freelancing is rarely forever

Maybe I am an alien???
I've said it once and I'll say it a million more times. Freelancing is a very difficult career. I've spent the last two and a half years calling Philadelphia my home, but living with host families and in hotels across the country. I have spent more nights sleeping in guest bedrooms than I have my own. In fact, this past week I turned to my partner and told him, "I'm an alien." OK, so maybe that is a really odd/awkward statement to make. But for anybody that knows me and the way my brain works, it makes total sense. I don't feel like I belong anywhere. When I'm home, nothing seems familiar and when I am away everything is foreign. With all of this said, I was given some wise advice from the father of one of my colleague's early on in my career at PNB. "If you want to accomplish something, you need to put it in writing." So, this has been brewing for a long while now, but it has taken time to hone in on the issue and its' solution. I'm ready to put this one in writing. And with all my efforts to keep the integrity of this blog an open and honest journal and tool into freelance work and living in the dance world, I'd rather share the true experience of a freelance dancer than the glorified, overcoming adversity tale that we, as a society, are trained to enjoy and reward. I need to greatly slow down my freelancing. There. I said it. ::breathes out::

I didn't choose freelancing. I could've chosen not to freelance. There is this saying that "you don't choose ballet, it chooses you." I don't remember who said it first. But however cliche it sounds, it is true. Ballet and technical dance in general are not kind arts. As a child, you are put into this art form because parents think it is cute, good exercise, and fun. This is one of the greatest facades I have ever known. Ballet is grueling, torturous hard work that is generally unforgiving, aesthetically-elitist, and selfish. Those that are lucky enough to enter the professional ballet world learn very quickly if they were chosen by it. I've seen many magnificently talented dancers quit during their first few years with a company due to injury, poor coping skills, burnout, or unhappiness with casting. These people weren't the chosen ones. Those that are chosen will suffer through less than ideal circumstances for three reasons; to defeat adversity, to savor those rare moments when ballet does give back, and because they need to dance. When I suffered my injury nearly two years ago and was unfairly let go from my company job, there was no question that I needed to dance. It was only a matter of how. At the time, my only option was freelancing.

This costume wasn't a highlight of my freelancing career
While ballet can be challenging, freelancing (on it's own) can be equally unforgiving. Put the two together and, at times, this avenue to dance can be wearing. While I have had some lovely experiences freelancing, I have also seen a darker side of our art. The term starving artist must have been borne alongside the term freelance artist. While I have been lucky enough to sustain myself over the past 2 1/2 years on dancing and teaching, most freelance dancers I know survive on hours of work doing non-dance jobs. This takes away from time they could be investing in the studio and it takes away from their energy levels to perform well. My savings account has dwindled well below my comfort zone. And I am beginning to feel the pressure of this lifestyle; keeping myself in shape and motivated, never-ending work searches, neglecting body maintenance, and monetary distress. Conditions, non-professional work, salary, self-negotiating, inconsistent work, and more make the emotional challenges of freelancing overwhelming at a certain point. These things are most likely the reasons that most of my high-level freelancing friends take big breaks from the lifestyle, as well. I do think my time for an extended break has come.

With all of this negative, also comes the positive. I have never felt freer artistically since I started traveling on my own. The good jobs that I get are usually quite professional, where those in charge understand the professionalism that goes along with my credentials. These lead to trusting relationships, where I have been able to have more say in my product. I have seen parts of the world I wouldn't have seen otherwise. And for every 5 to 10 jobs that pay poorly, there is usually 1 or 2 that make you feel like a celebrity. But all in all, it is the people that you meet along the way that make it worthwhile. And the privilege to see that there are amazing dance artists everywhere has been eye-opening; in every company and in every project that I have been a part of. Lastly, it is really gratifying to know that I can make a dance career happen on my own. No company, agent, or individual to take credit, except myself.

So, I guess the big question is what is next? Well, the big plan was this. I was very inspired by the audition process for Chris Wheeldon's American in Paris. I would love to explore the world of musical theatre and Broadway, as I feel that joining that world would be coming full circle with my training. When I was a teenager, Riz-Biz Productions founder and former A Chorus Line dancer, Bob Rizzo, took me under his wing.  Everybody and their mother told me to stop dreaming about ballet and go into musical theatre. They told me this because I was known for my personality onstage and clearly behind in my ballet technique. The only issue with this is that I didn't have proper vocal training and I had fallen in love with ballet. So, included in my plan is a period of vocal training and, maybe even, some acting lessons.

This was my original plan. Im in khakis on the right. West Side Story Suite by Jerome Robbins (Photo: Angela Sterling)
This was the plan until I went down to Los Angeles to dance with Barak Ballet. I've been pulled into conversations a lot lately about my ballet career. If I start to focus on Broadway, does that mean that it could be the beginning of the end of my ballet career? Not necessarily. But when three established people in the dance world; a respected dance critic, a former Balanchine ballerina and Balanchine Trust repetiteur, and well-respected teacher, pull you aside during the same week and tell you that you need to go back into a ballet company, you can't help but think that the universe is trying to tell you something. And even worse, or better, it was echoing a little voice that has been screaming for attention in the back of my head for quite a while now. I miss dancing for a ballet company. I miss being in constant preparation for a production. I miss coming to company class everyday with my colleagues and a live pianist. I miss a regular community. I miss having a live orchestra. I miss a lot of that life.

So what happens with my freelancing? Well, until I figure all of this out, I will continue freelancing. My plan is to start slowing my traveling down over the first six months of the new year. I'm currently searching for teaching work to reestablish my savings account. Eventually, I hope to only take work that I really, really, really want to do. As this happens, I plan on beginning work for both of my plans. I will work towards both to see which seems like a more viable option. My end goal is to either join a ballet company or be auditioning for shows in New York City by September.

My end goal
Does this mean that this is the end of Life of a Freelance Dancer? Absolutely not! One thing I do know, it was a difficult challenge to learn how to freelance. And now that I know the ropes of this segment of the dance world, it will always be a part of my career. I never said that I was going to stop freelancing. I just desperately need to find home, stability, and lower my stress level. Even if I have periods where I am not freelancing or do join a company again, I will continue to write about my experiences and educate future freelancers on the intricacies of this world. And the best thing about a blog like this is that it is not confined to one area of our community. Anybody can be a freelancer at any point, whether they are in a company, doing a long term gig, or freelancing full-time. Thank you to all of my readers for your continued support. I look forward to many years of advice, enlightenment, and experiences. And thank you for letting me share my true, honest experiences with all of you!

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